Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Last Roman-Sassanid Persian War

I am currently re-reading Peter Crawford’s “The War of the Three Gods”, about the last Roman-Persian war and the subsequent whipping that both of those powers then took at the hands of the Muslim Arabs. I’ve just finished the first part and am writing this to summarize the events chronologically for my own use and hopefully as an introduction for those who don’t know this period. The war was between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia, whose state religion was Zoroastrianism. They didn’t worship fire but the extensive use of fire in their temples convinced non-believers otherwise. The western part of the Roman Empire - including Rome - had gone under over a century before, though much had been reconquered. The Empire was Christian, including all the baggage between Orthodox Christianity and heretics that came with it. My outline of the war is cursory and incomplete. To those already deep into this period, have mercy.

Back in the day, when I worked in a library (and got to read most of the new history books first) I read a stirring account of the last Roman-Persian war. It  said heroic Emperor Heraclius overthrew the evil usurper Phocas, turned the disastrous war around, rallying his people in a virtual crusade. Crawford’s book doesn’t worship Heraclius, noting that he suffered a decade of defeats, losing major parts of the Empire before his counterattack on Persia. He did finally turn the war around, just in time to serve up two exhausted powers to the Muslim jihad. The current book is a drier read than the one back in the 70s (cannot recall the name), wnich featured the super-hero Heraclius dispatching Persian champions and generals in single combat.

Heraclius at the Battle of Ninevah

Rome and the Sassanids had been waging war against each other sporadically since the Sassanids overthrew the Parthians in the early 3rd Century. Fairly evenly matched, the wars usually resulted in minor changes to territory in Armenia or Mesopotamia. They also waged proxy wars through the Arab Ghassanids (Pro-Roman and Christian) and Lakhmids (Pro-Persian). Both Rome and Persia had plenty of internal problems with civil wars and usurpations. The key to the last war arises from the previous war (572-591). In 590 the Sassanid Spabed (general) Bahram rose against the aging Shah Hormizd IV. Replacing the Shah with his vigorous son Khusro II (AKA Chosroes, Khusrau, etc.) wasn’t enough. The young Shah fled to Roman Syria. Bahram crowned himself Bahram VI Chobin. The soldier-emperor Maurice (AKA Mauricius) invited the exiled Shah to Constantinople. With the substantial Roman force loaned him added to his own followers, Khusro regained his throne, chasing Bahram into exile and an early death. Khusro signed a treaty that was very favorable to the Romans. For a decade, the truce held and both put their energy into shoring up their other frontiers, Rome on the Danube against Avars and Slavs, Sassanids in the Caucasus against Turks.


Sassanid heavy cavalry

Maurice tried to cut the cost of the expensive military. Instead, he was deposed by an army mutiny. A soldier named Phocas seized the throne and had Maurice and all his family slain. To Khusro this was cause for war delivered on a silver plate. He declared he would avenge his benefactor. And in the process reverse the overly generous previous treaty. So began the final war between these powers in 602. It would rage on for 26 years.

The Sassanids made slow progress, each fort or city requiring a lengthy siege. Phocas did little to stop this slow rot. Instead he was busy stomping out internal plots, executing any deemed loyal to the previous regime.


In 608 Heraclius, governor of Roman Africa from Carthage rose against Phocas. Two years of civil war saw Phocas dethroned and executed in his turn, with Heraclius taking the throne in 610. During this time the Sassanids had continued capturing cites, severely compromising the Roman defensive system.  Things began to collapse early in the reign of Heraclius. Mesopotamia, Armenia, Syria and Palestine fell to the Persians. Jerusalem fell, Christian morale sinking as the True Cross and other relics were carried off. An early attempt by Heraclius to stem the tide saw him and his army defeated. Heraclius adopted a cautious strategy, refusing to fight the enemy in the open field, now relying on raids, then sheltering behind fortress walls. Slowly he built the battered Roman army back up. This was done without the wealth of the eastern provinces lost to Sassanid occupation. The Persians did not squeeze as much wealth from the provinces as the Romans knew how to. Persian policy was to be tolerant of the local Christians, Monophysite heretics who had suffered under Roman rule. They were more tolerant of the Jews than the Romans had been. The Persians weren’t loved by all but there was not much in the way of local resistance either. The complete conquest of the Roman Empire seemed within reach.

East Roman Infantryman

Next the Persians conquered Egypt, the source of grain for Constantinople. The Avars invaded the Balkans and besieged the capitol. A Persian army invaded Anatolia and watched the Avar siege from across the Bosphorus. The superior Roman navy crushed the few attempts by the Persians to send aid cross the water to the siege. Eventually the Avar force, having lost heavily attacking the triple line of land walls, gave up. The Persian army retired to Syria. Heraclius now marched east through Armenia, sacking Sassanid cities and temples. Three Sassanid armies tried to corner him. Using his Arab light cavalry scouts effectively to detect this scheme, he beat each of the three armies in turn and then escaped back to Anatolia before they could combine against him.

One of the Sassanid generals had died in battle. Another critical general Shahrbaraz came under suspicion from the Shah, who sent orders to have the general slain. The Romans intercepted the order and showed it to Shahrbaraz. That general then doctored the order to include 400 of his officers on the death list before revealing it to them. Convinced, they decided to follow him as he led his army to sit out the rest of the war in Syria, waiting to see the result and in time moving on the throne. 

        Shahrbaraz on coin issued during his later brief time on the throne.  

Having neutralized the toughest enemy force, Heraclius marched back east and in the next two years inflicted defeats on enemy forces sent against him, sacked cities and spoiled major Zoroastrian temples, heading for the heart of Persia. He was stopped from taking the capitol Ctesiphon when the bridge across a canal was burned, but Persian morale hit rock bottom. Khusro was overthrown and slain by his own aristocrats. A treaty ended the war with both sides going back to their original positions before the war. It took a while for the forces to untangle themselves, with both sides having their best forces deep in enemy territory. But it was done, the war ending in 628, both sides having poured blood and treasure out in torrents, both having had hostile armies lay waste their richest provinces. The exhausted powers licked their wounds. Sassanid Persia descended into chaos, 11 shahs occupying the throne after Khusro, before the last Sassanid Shah took power in 633. In Constantinople, Heraclius founded a dynasty and lived long enough to see the Muslims undo much of his work.


Muhammed died in 632. The next year saw the first Muslim Arab invasion of Iraq under Khalid, a skilled commander. More attacks would follow, pouring out of the desert to wage jihad against the infidels, eradicating the Sassanid dynasty. They stripped the Mideastern and African provinces from the Roman Empire, reducing it from Mediterranean super-power to a mere regional player. Historians call that lesser power the Byzantine Empire. They called themselves Romans to the end, some 8 centuries later.





Monday, July 18, 2022

Twilight of the Britons - Across the Channel - Twilight of the Romans

The Fencibles had our first in-person game since last summer, before Delta reared its ugly head. We played a game outdoors in Red Hook, Brooklyn on a third floor deck. Three Fencibles were unable to attend. Carl showed up to play and Andrew came by after work to kibitz. We were playing the new set of rules Twilight of the Britons by Steven Thomas with some help from me.  The rules can be found here.

The rules are designed to represent the invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and such. Being the ornery cuss that I am, the game was set on the continent between a Roman/Gothic force against a Frankish/other Gothic force. Also happens that those are the figures I have ready to rumble. A set of Dark Age rules should work on both sides of the Channel. With the base size we were using (a pair of DBA bases for a total 80mm base width) the table should have been 48 inches square. We settled on 36" square and deployed a full 5 BW apart. Carl opted for the Frankish/Gothic confederation and I took the Romans. Each side had 11 units, 3 heroes and 46 points, breakpoint 5 units/heroes. Dice determined I started deploying first and Carl moved first. It was an anodyne terrain set up. a wooded area on each flank and a small hill close to the center. We proceeded to forget a number of rules and misinterpret others, but still had a blast. 

Roman units: 1 Roman cavalry, 1 Gothic cavalry, 1 Hun light cavalry, 2 light infantry archers, 1 Orthodox Christian monk (light infantry), 3 Roman infantry, 2 Gothic infantry, 1 warlord and 2 heroes, about 3,200 troops.

Barbarian units: 3 Gothic cavalry, 1 heretical monk (light infantry), 7 Frankish infantry, 1 warlord and 2 heroes, about 3,700 warriors.

The game ended when Carl broke the Roman cavalry. The Huns had already routed, along with both Roman light infantry archers and the Monks, bring the total to the breakpoint of 5. His losses were 3 units to that point although at least two other units were one hit away from breaking. It had been close, though way too long. It turned out we had ignored a number of rules and mis-interpreted others. Being a co-author of the rules, my only excuse was it has been a while since I did that and proceeded to forget much in the interim.

The rules allowing the monks/priests (and druids and magicians for armies that have those) to curse enemy units with results akin to bowmen led to a lot of levity in the game. Think of the Latin lesson given in the film Life of Brian. Now conjugate the verb... And then we also supplied more prosaic curses of the local Brooklyn variety.

The game would have ended much faster if we'd played it correctly. The heat and alcohol consumption may have been a factor. Next time... Meanwhile, I ordered some more figures for each side, especially some monks and period-correct heroes. I used what extra single figures that could be found. The Warlord leading the Romans had a pot helm and a kite shield. He needs replacing.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Close Calls in Combat: More Korean War Accounts

This is another installment of my father-in-law's recollections of his time in Korea 1952-53. The first was Sniping with a M2 .50 caliber machinegun, the second was Life on the Hill, the third was Bed Check Charlie and the most recent was Medals Lost and Found. My comments are in italic. All else was written by my father-in-law. I am pleased and honored to post his stories of the front line. His account begins below.

Most infantry soldiers who served in combat have been in at least one life-threatening situation. I had three close calls.

The Sniper in the Valley

My job as a Heavy Weapons Company platoon leader, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division during the Korean War was to visit my 75mm recoilless rifle positions daily. The guns were used in direct fire positions (they could see the enemy) with overhead cover, open at both ends, strung out along the MLR (Main Line of Resistance).

                                        75mm recoiless rifle in action

The hill where this occurred had a wide valley in front with old rice paddies, the remains of burned-out villages and abandoned vehicles. There were many places for enemy snipers to hide. They would take up positions in the valley at night, and remain motionless within rifle shot of our lines.

In 1952, all army training included target practice on a rifle range.  Half the company would fire their weapons, usually M1 rifles, while the other half pulled and marked targets. Those pulling targets had to listen for the sound of the bullet passing overhead and through the target, pull the target down on cables and mark the hit. If a miss, they waved “Maggie’s drawers” (a red flag on a pole). They learned to distinguish the sound of a bullet passing over from one fired at the targets a few feet away, left and right. 

Maggie's drawers (missed again)

I was walking on a path which ran just below the crest of the ridge line most of the way. The path had a narrow trench next to it, used for communication wires, about 4 feet deep. The path led through a flat section for about 100 yards, where I was in view from the valley below.

Suddenly I recognized the buzz of bullets passing close to me, even through the constant din of the front-line noise. A sniper in the valley had me in his sights. I jumped into the commo trench, ran along it doubled over for about 30 or 40 yards and then popped out and ran along the path for a few seconds, then back in the trench. That way I worked my way to the section of trail which was out of sight from the valley. After that I did not linger on that section of trail or keep to any time schedule.

Incoming Mail

My next close call was on an unnamed hill across from “Old Baldy”, near “Pork Chop” and “T Bone”. These hills were key terrain features, and had been involved in fierce fighting by my regiment for possession. We arrived at this position in the middle of the might, all ID on trucks and uniforms taped over. The Chi-com (Chinese Communist) positions were very close to this new hill.

75mm recoillees rifle

 Two men had to carry each gun barrel up the steep hill to the new position. It is normally a four-man carry but the path was very narrow. The unit being relieved left their tripods in place and took ours below. At the first light of dawn loud speakers from the other side welcomed the 23rd Regiment to the front line. That was followed by bugle notes (no particular bugle call) and propaganda messages in English. They were jamming our radio so sound power telephones were the only means of communication with HQ in the rear.

Every Thanksgiving I remember Thanksgiving of 1952. I was walking a path along the reverse slope, where the living bunkers were located, on my way to visit my gun positions. Now and then I could see around the crest enough to check the other side for possible 75mm gun targets, using my 20 power binoculars.   

I had stopped in my tracks and just put my binoculars up to my eyes when the field of vision turned very bright yellow. I did not hear any sound or feel anything until a few minutes later when I woke up on my back in the entrance to a bunker about 15 feet behind me. Men rushed up thinking I had been hit.

An artillery or mortar shell had exploded on the path about 10 feet ahead, just where I would have been if I had not stopped walking. I wore a flak jacket and did not get a scratch from the shrapnel, which spreads up and out in a cone formation.

Later I tried to analyze the crater but the ground was frozen very hard and I was not able to determine the flight direction of the missile. I would like to think the shell was made in Russia, but it could have been a short round from our own artillery or mortars. We were using left over WWII munitions and some shells were erratic.

Friendly Fire

My third close encounter took place is what was probably the safest place to be in the Korean War. I was returning from five days of R and R (Rest and Recuperation) in Japan and had arrived at Second Division Rear Head Quarters. The base was nine miles to the rear, considered so safe that all there wore soft caps instead of steel helmets.

About a dozen of us officers were stretched out on cots in a tent which was in the back row of a large block of tents to wait for transportation back to our units. Directly behind our tent was a shallow drainage ditch where trash had collected, and possibly used for a night time latrine. Beyond the trench was an open field. About 50 yards away in the middle of the field was a group of tents used by the 2nd Division’s motor pool repair shop. It was probably placed away from the rest of headquarters because truck body and fender repair can be noisy work.

Suddenly there was a very loud roar of airplane engines directly overhead followed immediately by several loud explosions behind our tent. An air raid! We ran out of the back of the tent and dove into the filthy ditch.  Hearing no more planes. I checked the sky. No planes were in sight. There was an unmanned half-track with four .50 cal. machineguns in the back, called a Quad 50, in a cut halfway up a nearby hill. Several half-dressed men were running up the hill to man this anti-aircraft gun position.

Photos taken by my Father-in-Law at the scene.

At the time, we were told that 12 men had been killed. Newspaper articles mailed to me later said that 13 died and nine were wounded. Twenty tents and three trucks were also destroyed.

Marine Panther jet fighter

An Investigation Board concluded that “Marine Panther jets were responsible for the bombing and strafing attack”. I am positive that there was no strafing and that these planes had piston engines. The 1950s straight wing jets made a whistling noise, and never flew that low.

Korean War Corsair

Most likely they were WWII Navy Corsairs jettisoning unused 500-pound bombs in what looked like an empty field, before returning to their carrier. They usually fly in pairs, often at tree-top level.

My Observations. 

Some men become fatalistic after constant shelling on the hills. They tended to take more chances. A ROK soldier assigned to my platoon as an ammo bearer wanted to prove how lucky he was by walking into one of our mine fields. That was the day his luck ran out.

Others turned to religion. Short church services were held most Sundays at the bottom of the hills. Men sat on their helmets; the cloth covered jeep hood with a metal cross became the altar.  Communion was served. No music, short message. It did not seem to matter what denomination the Chaplain belonged to.

Everyone lived for the day when they had enough points to rotate home. 36 points needed, as I recall. Troops got four points a month while on the line, three while in reserve or blocking positions. Rear echelon troops got only two points a month, but they got three hot meals a day and saw all the USO shows.

Lt. Tharp in Korea

Lt. Marshall Tharp

Korea, 1952-1953.

June 12, 2022 

Sent to me via USPS and transcribed in July.

Please feel free to post comments. Marshall likes to read them.